Years ago a friend recommended a book, one called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, by Shunryu Suzuki. The basic idea of the book is that there is something really special about the mental state of being a beginner. The author is quoted as having said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
This is what comes to mind as I have been exploring the path of cold water swimming. I have very little idea what to expect from myself, leaving me in a state of wondering and curiosity, with many possibilities ahead. As a beginner, doing it all for the first time, I’m in a unique phase of experience. Every swim is a new discovery, as the temperature of my local lake drops lower and lower. What will happen if I go at this temperature, I wonder at each start. What will happen if I stay in just a little longer, I think at the finish. What sort of new sensations will I experience under these new conditions? Will I experience something I haven’t before? I know from the past that you only get this phase of beginner-ing once per hobby and I am thoroughly savoring it this time around.
This particular hobby seems especially fertile for the emergence of a “beginners mind”, as part of the skill set seems to be taking an almost meditative-like interest in your body’s sensations and signals, learning to observe them carefully but also with a certain degree of equanimity, which is not the body’s natural fight or flight reaction to the danger of cold. The scenery is beautiful and unique. You are exposed to the elements, transporting your psyche back into its primal nature. The ego is kind of irrelevant, possibly mostly because I’m a beginner, but the nature of the sport makes it even more so. There is deliciously nothing to prove, only survival, only facing fear, only getting to know yourself a little better.
Today I swam a personal best, something I thought I’d never be able to say about swimming again, since all my fastest times were under the age of eighteen. Today my time was forty-four minutes at fifty-one degrees (water), thirty-eight degrees (air). Now the goal of the sport is longer, not faster. Here I am at the start of the swim today. (All photo credits in this post go to Dan).
I swam what I think of as, “the course” at Lake Billy Chinook, a reservoir at the confluence of three rivers here in Central Oregon. I swim on the Crooked River arm this time of year, because it is the closest and, I suspect, the warmest. The river has carved away the canyon to create colossal cliffs that loom in the background, a foreboding backdrop for a swim. The course is around some buoys labeled, “swim area, no boats”, which are strung together with an actual lane line. Today, I swam between the lane line and a floating dock, where Dan paced along with me, checking in with me every five minutes or so.
Here I am backstroking the first few minutes of today’s swim.
The first half lap is always hard. I start off waist deep for a couple minutes, then comes backstroke for a few minutes. I don’t really mind that at all–it’s just once it comes time for me to put my face in. That is a bit brutal for a few strokes, and then maybe a few more. Then suddenly, I feel fine, my skin has reached the temperature of the lake and I feel warm in my core. Today, I felt great. The air temperature was 38F, but it was sunny and beautiful. Dan was there, walking along the floating dock. I swam the first lap and felt good and acclimated. By the start of the second lap, I was feeling euphoric. I remember thinking how surreal the whole thing is, swimming out here in November, when nighttime temperatures have been in the teens for the past week. Also odd to feel simultaneously warm and frozen at the same time. My stroke felt strong, smooth and powerful. I swam along, a feeling of genuine pride glowing in my core and making me feel warm and happy. “I love being a beginner,” I remember thinking, cheerfully.
I focused on keeping my mouth closed underwater to keep the cold out, but I haven’t mastered this habit yet. Periodically I’d notice a mild stinging sensation on the tip of my tongue. I tricked myself into thinking it was some nasty chemical in the water, burning my tongue, and then had to un-trick myself into thinking it was just the cold. The water was clear and I could see to the bottom. I thought about what it would be like if this were the ocean and sharks were a possibility. I am way jumpier in colder water.
On lap three, the same mild stinging feeling crept into the palm of my left hand, like pressing your palm onto the bristles of a hair brush. During my checks with Dan, I was still showing great dexterity, however, so I knew I was ok. At the midway point check-in of lap three, for some reason I drank a huge gulp of water. Like, HUGE. I have no idea why. I was stopped, vertically treading water, saying something to him. The water was glassy, there were no boats and the next thing I knew I had swallowed, then sucked in, an absurd amount of lake water. I coughed a bunch then reassured Dan I was ok. It did freak me out a little and got the adrenaline up. It was just so random.
Going into lap four, I was just beginning to feel the urge to shiver, but not shivering. Dan later told me my stroke count slowed down at this point. The palm of my left hand burned, my feet were cold but not totally numb. Dexterity was still great, no speech slurring. I signaled to Dan that this would be my last lap, and decided to skip the first half of it and just stay next to the floating dock. When I reached the midway point, I gave Dan a thumbs up and headed back. I remember it getting a lot harder on the second half of the way back (last quarter of lap four). The cold feeling had spread into my upper arms and my muscles felt sluggish. I wasn’t shivering but I also felt like being done. I wasn’t looking forward to the “after-drop” and the post swim shivering. I briefly had the thought that I could put off the shivering if I just swam a little longer, but knew that didn’t make any kind of sense.
I got out and felt great at first. Not much shivering, and Dan wrapped a towel around me. I had just finished getting my warm clothes on when the shivers really set in. But they weren’t any worse than usual, adding to my confidence that I’ll be ok doing this, at least for a little longer into the winter. I’ll do it again next week, have another adventure and learn something new.